A Different Death

Yesterday, my husband John, and I, along with family and friends, celebrated my father’s life of 92 years with a beautiful memorial service. He was buried with military honors for his service during WWII. In the week since his death, friends have asked me how I was feeling about his death – knowing that this death is the now the fifth death in my immediate family since 2001. First my younger brother at 40 from AIDS, then my sister at 56 from breast/brain cancer, then my son at 25 from a heroin overdose, then my other brother at 51 by suicide – and now my father.

This death, of a great-grandfather, is different than the previous four in so many ways. Not only do we expect grand-parents to pass away before their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, but we know by the 10th decade of life, the day to meet our maker is fast approaching. For my father, he was doing quite well mentally, but his health was declining rapidly this year. By August, we knew his days were numbered – and so did he. The dying know they are dying, and for my father, it made him sad. He loved life and he loved his family. And even though he had a strong Christian faith and confidence in waking up in a new and unimaginable existence with his loved ones who went before him, he still had a very natural trepidation of the process of dying.

His last two weeks were marked by no appetite and finally no ability to even drink – his body was done with this life. With John holding his hand, he took his last breath and his spirit left the room – and left this earth. How did I feel? Sad because we will no longer enjoy his presence, and his death marks the end of an era of the large Italian family dinners and parties. But I was also relieved that he was no longer suffering in a body that was giving out.

The unexpected death of our son from a heroin overdose was different in every way imaginable. I look back now and wonder how John and I made it – how we didn’t end up institutionalized under heavy medication. I remember in the first few months feeling that my mind was on the verge of splitting in two – my heart was already broken – but it is our minds that hold us together. The love and support from our close friends and family surely were part of that glue. But the real potion that caused us to not tip over the edge was the mercy and grace of God. Without Him, we wouldn’t have had the courage to go on or the strength to look ahead with hope of an eternity with our son and with our other family members.

For those of you with friends who have lost a child to a drug overdose, please remember that a sudden, unexpected, preventable death is different from all other losses. These deaths are not natural, the lives were not completed, the parents and family can not just move on. They need your love and support – and prayers.

Who Is Dying Today?

In 2017, 16,000 people were killed by gun violence in America: some of them innocent children and young people while they were in school; some while they were just growing up in poor neighborhoods. Our first-world allies are stupefied that we can continue to allow such preventable deaths.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there were 63,632 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2016 – preventable deaths: 172 deaths per day; 42,249 (66.4%) of those deaths were due to opioids. More deaths in one year than those as a result of firearms, homicide, suicide, or motor vehicle crashes. And more deaths in one year than all the deaths from the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
Why are opioids so addictive – and deadly? One area in the brain that opioids directly affect is the amygdala – the pleasure center. For a large percentage of people, once those receptors that regulate emotions have sampled opioid joy, no other experience compares: not sex, food, sights, sounds. And, as Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century:

“No man can live without joy.”
I watched the truth of Aquinas’ insight in increasing measure with our son over the years as he fought his addiction to heroin. Heroin, the goddess of fleeting joy, always requiring more of her while she offers less pleasure. It was not just the misery of the horrendous withdrawal symptoms every time John Leif would try to get clean again. After they subsided, it was the flatness in his emotions and the dullness of living life without joy. What could replace the euphoria of a heroin high? How long would it take for that pleasure center to normalize – would it ever return to its pre-opioid state?

Eventually we would see the light return to his eyes … this was especially true during the last 8 months of his life. Clean, sober, awake, in touch with life and with those around him. Enjoying the opportunity to see life “through a child’s eyes” as he played Legos with his 3 and 5 year old nieces: the real John Leif, alive and participating in the joy that life without addiction can offer. But, even this period of recovery ended – as did his life.

There is another part of the brain that opioids directly affect: the nucleus accumbens, which is the addiction center. Opioids change the neuroplasticity in this region so the brain physically craves them. Scientists are not sure how long it takes to rewire the addiction center because even after periods of sobriety, it does not return to normal, and thus the cravings continue. For most people, the cravings are irresistible and the easy solution is to return to using. For some, a strong impetus for freedom along with a spiritual renewal that gives them the strength to do the hard work of recovery with adherence to a 12-step program, is a life-saver.

For a recovery program to actually bring long-term changes to the brain, anything less than 6 months will not work. And the current thought by many professionals now is that recovery programs for opioid addiction should be 6 mo-1year and include a strict sober living program for a year following. Don’t let costs deter you. The Salvation Army has very solid alcohol and drug rehab/recovery programs in many cities and they are free:
https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/combat-addiction/

If you are struggling with addiction and feel trapped – or if you know someone who is – please do not let another day pass without seeking help. It is urgent – it is more than important – it is essential – it is life and death – your’s or someone you love.